16 Different Types of Butter and How to Use Them
It’s no secret that butter has a tendency to make every dish it’s added to exponentially better, from biscuits and brown butter pasta to cookies and so much more. Butter’s distinct flavor works magic in baked goods, pasta dishes, and garlic bread, just to name a few examples. Although you might be used to sticks or tubs of butter as your go-to kitchen fat, there are many — and I mean many — different types of butter out there, all with their own distinct flavors, textures, and functions.
You probably know the basics of butter: Aside from being available in solid white-ish-yellow blocks at the grocery store, it’s typically made from cow’s milk (although you might find goat and sheep butter at farmers markets and specialty stores). The cream that is produced from milk is churned until solid, and the liquid left behind is buttermilk (which is really easy to make from scratch, by the way). American-sold butters are about 80% butterfat, with the remaining percentages made up of mostly water (15% to 18%) and a small amount made up of milk solids.
Read more: The Best Butter Brands
If you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, however, you’re likely to run into quite a few types of butter. Below, we’ll explore them all.
16 Different Types of Butter (and How to Use Them)
Sweet Cream Butter
Sweet cream butter is simply butter made specifically with pasteurized fresh cream as its main ingredient, as opposed to cultured or soured cream (which tend to give butter a slightly tart flavor). Contrary to its name, though, sweet cream butter isn’t sweeter or creamier than the typical stick of butter you’d normally come across, as explained further in our article about sweet cream butter. Most major American brands of sweet cream butter contain about 80% butterfat. Sweet cream butter can be salted or unsalted.
If you’re a baker, then you’ve almost certainly used unsalted butter before. Most baking and dessert recipes call for unsalted butter. The name is pretty self-explanatory: Unsalted butter is butter that is produced and sold in just about its most unaltered form. In other words, it doesn’t contain added salt or flavors. Baking with unsalted butter is great because it allows you to control the salt content of your dish more carefully. This is particularly important for dishes that can’t be tasted and adjusted during cooking, such as raw cookie dough or batter.
In contrast to unsalted butter, salted butter has a significant amount of salt added to it, which is usually noticeable with a small taste. While many proponents will tell you that unsalted butter is better for baking and cooking, and for good reason, that doesn’t mean salted butter has no place in your shopping cart — take your pick from these brands of unsalted butter. In fact, I love using a tablespoon or two for scrambled eggs in the morning or just spreading some on toast.
Clarified butter is made by skimming off the milk solids from the surface of melted butter and separating out the water content. The resulting concentrated product is almost 100% butterfat, and has a vibrant yellow color that comes from the beta carotene in the cow’s diet (of grass or hay). Plus, clarified butter is actually pretty easy to make at home — see our guide on how to make clarified butter to learn how.
Ghee is a type of clarified butter. The main difference between ghee and typical clarified butter is that ghee is cooked longer after it has had its water content taken out, which allows the milk solids to toast, similar to brown butter. Ghee is a staple ingredient in India and can be made a few different ways, explained in this article about how to make ghee. (This chicken biryani recipe is one excellent way to use your ghee.)
Cultured butter is butter that is made by combining it with bacterial cultures (or simply cultures), similar to how yogurt is made. To make cultured butter, the cultures are added to the pasteurized cream, which is then allowed to thicken and ferment. The cream is then churned to make butter. Cultured butter typically has a tangier flavor, due to the fermentation process. Many cultured butters made in the United States also have a higher butterfat content than non-cultured butter — Vermont Creamery, for example, says its cultured butter has 82% butterfat content, similar to creamier European-style butter. You can even learn how to make cultured butter at home.
European-style butter simply refers to the common European practice of making and churning butter to at least 82% butterfat content (vs. the usual 80% in American sweet cream butter). The difference between European and American butter may seem small but it is worth looking into if you are particular about your butter. Many favor European butter, sold by brands like Plugra, Luvpak, and Beurre Président, because the higher butterfat content makes it creamier, richer, and easier to spread. Our Food Editor-at-Large, Christine Gallary, emphasizes that the lower water content in European-style butter makes for a particularly flaky and buttery pie crust. Plus, European butter is cultured, which gives it a subtle tang.
Irish butter, which is produced from (no surprise here) Irish dairy cows, is a type of European-style butter that is churned until it reaches about 82% butterfat. One popular brand is Kerrygold. The bright yellow color comes from the beta carotene in the rich grasslands that Irish cows feed on.
Amish butter is easily recognizable due to its unique shape. Amish butter usually comes in a log and is made from cream that is churned to about 84% butterfat, making for an extra-creamy texture. This style of butter is traditionally produced within or around Amish communities and some brands of Amish butter, like Minerva Dairy, sell their butter in 2- or 8-pound rolls as well as quarter sticks. Since Amish butter has such a high butterfat content, it’s great in recipes like pie crusts, cookies, and pastries, which typically rely on a lot of butter for richness.
A compound butter is typically made by flavoring softened sticks of butter with additional ingredients and seasonings. You can use either unsalted or salted butter and any spices and seasonings you love. Common add-ins for compound butters include spices like paprika or chipotle chile powder, finely chopped herbs such as thyme or basil, and alliums like roasted garlic. Compound butters are great when rolled into a log in plastic wrap — this makes it easier to slice into coins — and placed on top of a just-out-of-the-skillet steak or simply spread on a piece of crusty bread. (Read more about compound butters here.)
Plant-based butter is exactly what it sounds like — butter that is produced by mixing oils derived from plants with water. Plant-based butters are similar to margarine (read more below), except plant-based butters are usually explicitly branded as vegan. Plant-based butters are typically made from olive oil, soybean oil, palm kernel oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil. Brands like Mykonos sell plant-based butters that are great options for vegan cooking and baking.
Whipped butter is butter that has been aerated by being whipped with a mixer. This process helps make the butter softer, fluffier, and much easier to spread. If you’re up for it, you can look more into how to make whipped butter yourself. This variety of butter is great for all sorts of occasions, and is especially lovely spread on some warm toast in the morning.
Brown butter really refers more to a technique of cooking butter rather than producing it. Brown butter is made by heating butter just to the point where the milk solids in the butter start to darken and get toasted. Remember that butter can burn, so brown butter can be tricky to make. When you get it right, brown butter adds an amazingly rich and nutty flavor to just about anything — including these brown butter chocolate chip cookies, this gnocchi with brown butter and thyme, and this honey brown butter popcorn. Try making your own with this easy-to-follow guide on how to make brown butter.
“Grass-fed” is a term you’ve likely seen attached to various packages of butter at the grocery store. The term simply refers to the diet consumed by the cows from which the butter is made. Grass-fed butter is produced from milk derived from cows that graze in grasslands rather than being fed a grain-based diet. Grass-fed butter tends to have a richer yellow hue, and proponents say it has a richer flavor than regular butter.
Butter that is branded as “light” typically contains butter in combination with other ingredients, such as water and buttermilk, that reduce the overall amount of cholesterol, fat, and calories in the spread. Many brands, such as Land O Lakes, specifically make butter labeled as “light butter,” often combined with ingredients like canola oil. Other popular brands, like Smart Balance, use terms like “buttery spread.” These types of “buttery spreads” are typically made from a blend of different vegetable oils, as opposed to the fat in cream.
Thanks to brands like Country Crock and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, butter-like substitutes are available in just about every grocery store. Unlike natural butter, margarine is made from solidified vegetable oils. Although margarine is made from vegetable oils, this does not mean that every brand of it is necessarily vegan. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’s original version, for example, contains milk, although the brand does carry a vegan-branded product.